Two of the four spots in the Final Four have already been claimed by Kentucky and Wisconsin and Michigan State and Duke grabbed the last two in the last two regional finals. The Spartans were pushed to overtime by Louisville and the Blue Devils came out victorious over the Bulldogs of Gonzaga.
In the East regional final Michigan State survived to beat Louisville 76-70 in an overtime thriller. Down by 8 at the half the Spartans understood that they needed to have an increased sense of urgency to beat a very aggressive Cardinals team. Montrezl Harrell dominated the first half with his aggressiveness but Tom Izzo’s team did a great job locking him down in the second and keeping Louisville out of the paint. Terry Rozier’s 4 steals and defensive intensity kept the Cardinals in the lead for most of the game but down the stretch Michigan State’s composure shined through.
Louisville got a very nice break as they were fouled on their final shot attempt down by only one point, but Mangok Mathiang, a 50 percent free throw shooter, was only able to hit one of two free throws forcing the game into overtime. Michigan State took their momentum from regulation into overtime and continued to systematically and calmly run their offense and stay ahead of the Cardinals. Wayne Blackshear did his best to try to keep Louisville close in the overtime ending the game with 28 points and a perfect 12 of 12 from the line, but in the end Michigan State was the better team and will move onto Indianapolis and the Final Four for the seventh time under coach Tom Izzo.
Duke grabbed the last spot in the Final Four who grinded out a tough victory over the two seed Gonzaga. The 66-52 final score line did not dictate how close of a game it actually was with Gonzaga really doing a good job defending the Blue Devils star big man Jahlil Okafor.
In the first half Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer kept the Zags in it scoring 13 of his teams 26 first half points, as he was a bad matchup for Justise Winslow with his size and outside shooting ability. Even with Okafor held in check for the most part Duke was still able to find offense through their outside game with Tyus jones and Quinn Cook hitting some timely three pointers. For a period it looked as if the Bulldogs were a bit overmatched by Duke but as the half wore on so did Gonzaga’s confidence and they really did a good job of finding good offensive looks. A big boost for Gonzaga in the first half was the play of Domantas Sabonis who came off the bench and played excellent defense on Okafor and got some big buckets of his own.
Gonzaga capitalized on the momentum they gained late in the first half early in the second half as they came out ready to take it to the Blue Devils. On both sides of the floor the Bulldogs made Duke very uncomfortable to open the second half scoring well and really putting pressure on Duke on the defensive end. Duke was able to whether that storm well and settled into their game as the second half wore on. The Blue Devils were down by four with about 16 minutes to play, but from then on began to force their will on the game and take over on both ends. Okafor did not have his best game as Gonzaga really keyed in on him, but the other two freshmen standouts Jones and Winslow really stepped up ending with 15 and 16 points respectively.
Duke held Gonzaga scoreless for the last six minutes of the game and that is why in the end the score line looked much more lopsided than it actually seemed. With the win Duke will head to their 12th Final Four under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, their first since winning the title in 2010. They will face another premier coach in Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans.
This year’s Final Four is full of legendary coaches and historic programs and hopefully the matchups can live up to that hype on the court. Kentucky will face Wisconsin and Duke will face Michigan State for a chance to play in the title game to cut down the final net and be crowned 2015 NCAA champions.
Commentary By Max Petkevicius
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia – Creativecommons License